Review: The Tom Bihn Synapse 19 backpack

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My single strongest brand loyalty is to Tom Bihn bags. They’re brilliantly designed, attractive, near-indestructible, and made in the USA. I describe them as the Apple of bags. My first was an Empire Builder briefcase that I got when I went to Trinity, in an attempt to save my spine from my high school habit of carrying every textbook and binder around on my back in a bag that weighed half as much as I did. I carried it all through college, but it turned out to be so spacious that it didn’t really solve the problem; I still carried around more weight than my shoulders could really support. But as Tom Bihn bags have a modular design, I was able to take out the Brain Cell insert, attach a strap to it, and use it as a minimal MacBook case. Once the 11″ MacBook Air came out I went fully minimal and bought a Ristretto (original style, it’s since been updated) and for the last three years have never carried more than it could hold. 90% of the time that’s all I need, but very occasionally I’ve wanted something more capacious. Then, a Hanukkah miracle: I now own a Synapse 19.

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It’s a small, six pocket backpack with shaped shoulder straps and removable sternum and waist straps that, once adjusted, hugs the body better than any pack I’ve ever owned. Mine is the navy blue nylon with Iberian red Dyneema interior, as pictured in the front panel shots here.1 (Though there are many other options. You can even get the whole thing in Dyneema, which is thinner than the nylon but reduces the empty weight by 7%.) The back panel is padded with a breathable mesh overlay to keep your back from sweating, and all of the zippers are rubberized for water resistance. The main compartment is an open space with a 2/3-height elastic pocket along the front. There are o-ring anchor points for attaching keychain lanyards or modular organizers, and it has two pairs of webbing loops to which you can attach the cache with rails to turn it into a checkpoint friendly laptop bag. Traveling to and from Texas for Thanksgiving, I found it very convenient to not have to take out my computer when going through airport security. Instead you just slide the cache out the top of the bag and let the whole thing go through the X-ray machine.

TBSynapse19_02Directly in front of the main compartment is a tall, narrow water bottle pocket, centered on the bag so that it doesn’t throw off the balance when it’s on your back. I don’t carry a water bottle, but this pocket is also perfectly sized for a small book, e-reader, or tablet. I’ve been using it to hold my iPad Mini. The two side pockets are curved and positioned such that they can be easily access while the pack is being worn by dropping one shoulder strap and pulling it around under your arm. One side has sewn-in pen sleeves and the other has a soft, sueded pocket for holding something you don’t want scratched. The website suggest a cell phone, but I’ve been keeping my backup hard drive in mine. Both side pockets have o-ring anchors, as does the small front top pocket behind the logo. The bottom pocket is full width and deeper than it looks. I’ve been keeping gloves, a wool cap, and my unused straps in there.

So far I’ve used it as my only bag on an overnight to Madison, and as my under-seat carryon for my trip back to Texas, and its been perfect for both. Even when I was packing clothes and toiletries along with my computer for the overnight trip, I didn’t quite max out its capacity. That said, it’s still small enough that I’m not at risk for hurting my back again. It easily sits near my feet in a full car, and can hook across the back of a restaurant chair without tipping it over when I stand up. The weather hasn’t been conducive yet to wearing it while riding my bike, but it has been perfect for every other task I’ve thrown at it. It’s the best backpack I’ve ever used. (If this design is attractive but the small size isn’t a plus for you, there’s also the Synapse 25, which is 30% larger but has the same layout.)

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  1. Photos from Tom Bihn’s site. 

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  1. By chance would you be interested in selling your bag?

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